Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Huskies take fans on a year-long joy ride




BY DONNA TOMMELLEO
Associated Press Writer

        STORRS, Conn. — Connecticut fans at the celebration of the Huskies' first men's national basketball title had a dual purpose for attending: convincing Richard Hamilton to stay for another year.

        Hamilton flirted with leaving before his junior year for the NBA. Speculation on whether he or sophomore guard Khalid El-Amin will return for another year has heightened during the Huskies' successful run and Monday's national title win over Duke.

        More than 10,000 at a pep rally chanted “One more year” for Hamilton, the Final Four MVP. He scored 27 points against Duke in the Huskies' 77-74 national title win.

        Coach Jim Calhoun said neither Hamilton nor El-Amin has approached him yet on the subject.

        “It's not my job to convince them to stay. It never has and never will,” he said. “These are young people going through the process. It is their decision.”

        But the school's winningest coach has counseled players in the past. Former standouts Donyell Marshall and Ray Allen sought his advice before coming out their junior years.

        Marshall, the top pick of the Golden State Warriors, wasn't ready to go, but the price was right, Calhoun said.

        “He was going to be offered between $45 million and $55 million and the salary cap was coming the next year,” Calhoun said.

        Allen, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, approached his coach twice. The first time was his sophomore year.

        “I asked him if he was happy and he said "I love college,”' Calhoun recalled. Allen chose to stay.

        “When he asked me his junior year if he was ready, I said "You are more than ready.' He obviously made a great decision. He's going to be an NBA All-Star shortly,” Calhoun said.

        But Tuesday was not just about saying goodbye to Hamilton, El-Amin or anyone. It was Thanksgiving in Connecticut and a time for recognizing the top team in the land.

        “You stood by us. You believed,” senior point guard Ricky Moore told the crowd. “We didn't let you down.”

        A bus carrying Calhoun and his national champions traveled the 35 miles from the airport to campus Tuesday, but it took them through the heart and hearts of Connecticut.

        Motorists pulled off along the highway. Families, jumping and waving, ran from their homes.

        “The journey back home was incredible,” Calhoun said.

        And once inside Gampel Pavilion, the team was embraced by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 10,000 fans.

        Calhoun reflected on the journey he began 13 years ago to build the No. 1 team. A big bump in the road was 1990's heartbreaking loss to Duke. A buzzer-beater by Christian Laettner kept the Huskies from the Final Four.

        “We returned to Storrs to have you mend our broken heart,” Calhoun said. “Yesterday, we ... broke some hearts.

        The title was the first for the men's team in school history and the first for a New England team since Holy Cross won the tournament in 1947. The UConn women brought home the national title in 1995 with a 35-0 season.

        The team and coaches sat on a raised platform in front of the student section, the same section Calhoun has saluted each time he has walked off after a game.

        “We couldn't wait to come back home to you and bring back the national championship,” Calhoun told the crowd.

        Earlier, at Bradley International Airport, about 2,000 fans cheered and screamed as the players mingled in the crowd. Leigh Anne Crocco of West Haven jumped frantically up and down as her hero, Jake Voskuhl, gave her a high-five.

        The 11-year-old was breathless for a moment before announcing, “Jake touched my hand!”

        At the close of the pep rally, the team walked off the podium and shook hands with some of the fans and proceeded in a slow victory lap around the floor.

        “When it was all said and done, Duke had a magnificent season — up to a point,” Calhoun said. “The great thing about our sport is you settle things on the court. This was supposed to be the year of the Blue Devils.”

        According to one of the scores of signs and banners held up in Gampel, “1999 was the Year of the Dog.”

       



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- Huskies take fans on a year-long joy ride
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